Snorkeling and diving in Komodo National Park is supposed to be excellent and that’s pretty much what we came for so N and I signed up for a day trip with a dive operator, popped our motion sickness pills and headed off early one morning on a big wooden double-decker boat with eight adults, three kids and a baby. We were immediately off to a good start as the boat got snagged on the anchor rope of another boat, and one of the staff had to go diving underneath to untangle us. So we sat there inhaling the acrid fumes from the boat’s engine and about fifteen minutes later we were off for real.
We met Kirsty and Emily, a British lesbian couple, who were the first British travelers we’ve gotten to know during our travels over the past year and a half. We shared travel tales and we realized that these 20-something kids were much more hardcore than us. For example, instead of going to Bukit Lawang on the Banana Pancake Trail which most people follow, they went to some remote remote area in Sumatra to see orangutans. While we were being carried up and down the mountain like royalty in a touristy area practically Justin Bieber-style because we can’t handle anything, they went on a more authentic experience by taking a tour on some rickety boat whose engine died halfway through on their way back. They were only saved by a passing boat which saw their captain waving a pole with a life jacket attached to the end of it. While we (I) would’ve spent the rest of our travel money extracting myself from that situation — via helicopter, G7, speedboat, or inflatable raft — and flown back to Tokyo in a traumatized daze, they kept calm and carried on (I had to use that somewhere in this post cuz you know, they’re Brits).
Besides them there were two quiet German guys who were snorkeling too, and a young globe-trotting Swiss family with a billion children (well, four). They were a hot mess even with two of the dive school’s staff on the boat to watch over the chirrens, and I wondered how they managed to travel around the world with their brood in tow. The kids immediately started tearing into bags of crackers and cookies, which they proceeded to stuff their faces with, spewing cookie crumbs and partially-masticated crackers all over the blankets laid out on the deck where we all sat. Not like a few crumbs here and there, but like a thin layer of them coating the floor. The parents didn’t seem to care, scooting all over the crumbs to talk to us and the German boys. My OCD was going out of control.
We got to our first snorkel/dive spot and N and I donned our masks and fins and watched scuba divers struggling awkwardly into their suits and equipment. Scuba diving reminds me of skiing but worse. There’s so much prep work needed before you actually go out and enjoy yourself. At least with skiing, you don’t have all these potentially life-saving computers and gear hanging off of you.
I love it when we get to a place and find so much more than we expected. In this case, we came to Penang for only food based on a recommendation by my college friend Jia-yi, and arrived in an unexpectedly cute little city chock full of fantastic food, beautiful old buildings, interactive street art and friendly people. An added plus was that the Georgetown Festival — the annual arts and culture event — was going on when we arrived.
In 2012, a Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic was commissioned to paint interactive wall murals in the Old Heritage district of Penang. Tourists flock to these murals — along with others painted by other artists — and wait patiently to pose creatively in front of the street art. We made our way around from one mural to another while consulting a wall mural map we found online, and eventually found ourselves at the Clan Jetty.
It started off with a random guy who made eye contact with us at a bar. “Hi, are you Thai?” Minutes later, this British expat close-talker had me awkwardly pinned against the back of someone’s chair, practically touching my face with his as he excitedly talked to us about how much he adores New York. After asking us what we were doing later and getting a vague answer, the friendly fellow recommended a few go-go bars that “aren’t boring”. We closed up the bar at the early hour of midnight and ducked into a cab with our new friends, Power, a Taiwanese friend-of-a-friend and Rebecca, her German friend.
The cab stopped in front of Soi Cowboy — the red light district of Bangkok — and we made our way down the narrow street aglow in a rainbow of neon lights from the big signs above. Scantily-clad young girls sat or stood by the bars that lined the street, calling out to the (usually Caucasian) men looking for a good time and a happy ending to the night. Power pointed out a bar she’s been to and we were made to order our first round outside the bar as an “entrance fee”. While we waited for our drinks to be delivered, we sat outside and people-watched.
A loud group of white guys in flower print shirts caught our attention and Rebecca called out to one, asking him why all of them are wearing a similar floral print pattern. “We’re here for our friend’s bachelor party and we had to wear the ugliest shirts we could find.” It was interesting to note that the majority of the shirts are perfectly nice, and the men wearing them clearly had zero taste. The guy chatted up our German friend, asking her if she teaches English in Thailand. She laughed and his drunk eyes steadied on mine as he slurred, “You’re very beautiful.” We all laughed at this poor drunk guy and headed into the black light of the club.
A stout woman wearing a Japan soccer jersey (for some reason, the Thais rooted for Japan during the World Cup) gestured to the stools by the brightly lit stage and we sat ourselves down. We looked up at the girls in white shirt-sleeved shirts and tiny skirts and realized they weren’t wearing any underwear. Neither were the girls on the floor above, standing on the plexiglass floor and swaying back and forth. So this is what Power was talking about at dinner. I looked at them for a bit as all of them stood on the stage unenthusiastically shuffling around like cattle at auction and I felt like an involuntary perv who enjoys looking up girls’ skirts.
If it weren’t for the crazy night we had last night, Zagreb would’ve been just another unmemorable city on our travels. But first, how we got there.
We had planned to meet our friend Ching-I from New York in Croatia, and decided that Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) would be the most convenient place for her to fly into to start exploring the rest of this weirdly-shaped country. After a day of sightseeing around Zagreb, the three of us quickly realized that the city itself really wasn’t anything special. There weren’t any really notable landmarks or tasty food to distract us from the blandness of the city.
Since we spent the weekend in Zagreb, we decided to check out the only “queer-friendly” bar (that wasn’t a club) I could find on the internet. We had some time to kill so we watched “Gravity” in IMAX for a mere $9 (not as cheap as Tallinn, though) and then walked back to the bar.
Café Vimpi is a cozy bilevel bar/café with a narrow spiral staircase that is a deathtrap for drunk people. But there weren’t any accidents that night, and the three of us settled around a small table and were served by the friendly lesbian bartender. Groups of queer people started trickling in, but we’re shy and we kept to ourselves. After a round of 0.5L Radlers, we looked around and ordered Tomislav beers, what the locals seemed to be drinking.
Years ago over a family dinner, my dear uncle went on a drunken rant about how Amsterdam was literally, “hell on earth.” What kind of civilized society, he asked the table, would accept homosexuality, allow drug use and legalize prostitution? We all responded in the way Japanese people do to awkward situations: silence, with no eye contact.
I was doing my best not to get emotional, although my uncle had no idea at the time that he was verbally attacking me. I had only recently come out to my parents then, and certainly not to my relatives. My parents’ strong disapproval was a fresh wound, and my uncle was rubbing salt in it. A cousin unknowingly came to my rescue, and the conversation shifted onto other things.
Since that night, I always wondered what Amsterdam was really like. Pieces of information came via friends who had visited (“Oh my god, the coffeehouses!”), but I knew I had to see it for myself. So we planned the tail end of our Germany tour so we could easily get to Amsterdam.
We decided to avoid the party scene and focus on getting some culture at the two big museums there: the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. We bought tickets in advance as recommended by everyone, since both museums just reopened after being closed for years and everyone in Europe seemed to be converging on them at the same time.
The Rijksmuseum was nicely renovated. N said it was almost unrecognizeable from the last time she was there. Apparently, the Dutch want this museum to be the “Louvre of the Netherlands”. We have been completely spoiled by New York City museums, which are generally empty or at least large enough to be manageable. Dealing with the crowd at the Rijksmuseum was a bit much, especially being jostled around by the very recognizable clusters of loud Spaniards and Italians.
“Berlin combines the culture of New York, the traffic system of Tokyo, the nature of Seattle, and the historical treasures of, well, Berlin.” – Hiroshi Motomura
If I wanted to move from my beloved New York City to someplace better, I would find myself on a one-way flight to Berlin. There, I said it. As a New Yorker, I like to compare big cities with my own, especially if I get to conclude that, “Yes, _____ is great but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like New York.” And I’ll sit there at an airy Paris café/packed biergarten in Munich/cool restaurant in St. Petersburg, staring glassy-eyed as I reminisce about my time in the Big Apple. But on our visit to Berlin, New York tasted almost bland by comparison, and for the first time since leaving home, I felt at home again.
Unlike many conventional travelers who research and book vacations months in advance (at work) and have the time to do the research for their destinations (at work), we have been planning as we go. But there are more than a few destinations on our loose itinerary we’ve been meaning to go to, and Berlin was one such city. Being uneducated and too lazy to look it up, I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
Berlin is not a wealthy city by any means, and it is understandable based on the fact that it was the victim of a tug-of-war between the Soviets and the other Allied Powers for 45 years after being badly demolished by the end of World War II. Because of this, the city is a good mix of all kinds of people, which lends to the unique cultural atmosphere.
What is there to do in Berlin? Well, just about anything your little heart desires. Using our rental apartment in trendy Kreuzburg (what Williamsburg in Brooklyn wishes it could be) as our base, we spent a week playing, eating (Vietnamese food), getting a haircut in a Japanese salon and educating ourselves in museums (the more educational part coming up in the next post).
To be perfectly honest, Germany wasn’t really a country that interested us. It was just an obstacle in between Eastern Europe and the more desirable countries lying along the western coast… And a rather large obstacle at that. Covering more than 137,846 square miles (357,021 km²), Germany is massive. As we traveled through Russia and Eastern Europe, travelers we met along the way raved about Germany. “Really???” we would ask. But they convinced us, and we changed our original plans to take the quickest route through Germany and decided instead to spend a little more than three weeks making our way around the country.
We spent our first night in Munich in a gorgeous apartment of a Couchsurfing host and woke up the next morning to breakfast on her balcony including her homemade hummus and jam. We made plans to meet up later that night and made our way to our Airbnb apartment. As we walked through the city with our big packs, I started to notice the German smile. The response to every brief moment of eye contact resulted in a smile. Not one of those grim New York smiles where only your lips twitch slightly as you eye the stranger suspiciously, but a full-on, warm, eye-twinkling one. I like you already, Munich.
We dropped off our bags at the apartment and went out to the farmer’s market we had passed through on the way there. It was in a small square, where vendors were selling their products from their trucks. We’ve been noticing that European fruit and produce look and taste better than in the U.S., and the stuff at the market looked divine. To make things even sweeter, most of the things there were organic (or “bio”, as they call it here), although we’ve been eating non-organic for the most part since the E.U. has higher food safety regulations than the U.S. (pesticide use and genetically-modified food bans to name just two). We bought lovely food and had a light lunch in preparation for the biergarten dinner we had planned that night.
Last night in Moscow — on our last night in the city — N and I had a homemade dinner with a traveling lesbian couple we had met in Irkutsk. Over delicious crepes (that they made) and wine, we talked about how the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) was poised to announce their decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) today, and swapped stories of immigration troubles as binational couples. The American woman had decided to leave the U.S. to be able to stay with her French partner and since both of them loved to travel, they have been continent-hopping for the past two years. But a job was waiting for the American back home, and her partner would only be able to stay in the U.S. for the duration of her tourist visa unless DOMA was overturned. As we sat and talked about the upcoming DOMA decision, we wavered between hope and not wanting to get our hopes up, just in case.
This uncertainty is what we — along with many other same-sex couples — have been living with. Last night I thought of my friends who are in the same predicament, all of those times we shared our concerns and tried to find ways around these restrictive laws. When N and I got tired of being in the rat race and decided to quit our jobs and travel for a year, we knew there was the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to come back right away unless I could secure another long-term visa. But despite this risk, we said, “Fuck it.” and did it anyway. Our friends back home reassured us that DOMA would be overturned and we would be back before we knew it, but in the back of my head I couldn’t help but think, “What if it isn’t?”
Today, after an 8-hour train ride from Moscow where I tried not to think about what was going on in the U.S., we arrived in St. Petersburg. I went online as soon as I could to find an email from the couple telling us to get some beer ready for a celebratory Facetime chat with them, now in Kiev. Additional emails from dear friends shared the same news. The New York Times confirmed everything. Facebook was full of jubilant status updates and shared articles about the SCOTUS decision on DOMA.
The fight goes on, but I want to savor this win for a little bit… With a cold Russian beer in my hand. Congratulations and cheers!